Martin Luther: A Biography

Ben Petersen

Review of Eric Metaxas: “Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World”

In his biography of Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World, Eric Metaxas paints a stunningly beautiful portrait of this late-medieval monk. For those who have heard some of the more well-known stories of Luther’s life, it is possible to gain the impression that Luther is somewhat of a bellicose bull in the proverbial China shop. Luther may seem to some more like a bar-room brawler than a precise, penetrating theologian. However, Luther was a far more complex figure than many have conceived of him as. There are two characteristics of Luther which Metaxas does an excellent job in bringing out. The first aspect of Luther’s character that Metaxas does wonderful job detailing is his devotion. Clearly when some think of Luther, they may think of some of the ostentatious remarks he made to his opponents or the angst which he felt with his fear of God’s judgement. But what some may not have known before reading this biography is Luther’s sincere devotion to God which was at the root of some of his more excessive behavior. One particular story that stands out in this biography is the “Cloaca” experience (Cloaca is essentially the latin term for toilet). Sometime during the year 1517, Luther came to the realization, while on the toilet, that it was by faith alone that the righteousness of God is received. In thinking upon “the just shall live by faith” in Romans 1:17, Luther was transformed. Speaking of this verse, Luther says, “that place in Paul was for me truly the gate to paradise.”[1] Here we come to understand what lay at the heart of Luther’s religious devotion. At an earlier point in his life, Luther was terrified that he somehow would not be good enough to please God. He did everything that he could to earn God’s approval. But after this “Cloaca” experience, Luther became a man who was convicted that he had nothing to offer God. Mankind was totally sinful and in need of God to spiritually resurrect them.

As a result of this conviction which was settling into his heart, Luther’s eyes were opened to the corruptions of Rome. Infamously, during the early 16th century, the Roman Catholic church was selling indulgences to fund massive building projects in Rome. At the expense of the poor peasants of the church, who thought that they were securing salvation for their souls, the church was amassing huge amounts of wealth and material goods. Luther saw this and his soul was disgusted. Here was a man who was willing to be condemned by the ecclesiastical authorities for his convictions and in his desire to follow Christ. Metaxas’s biography makes quite clear that Luther was not protesting from a place of pride or arrogance but rather out of concern for the purity of the church. In a letter that Luther wrote to Pope Leo, Luther writes, “I strive for only one thing: that the Roman church, our mother, be not polluted by the filth of unsuitable avarice, and that the people be not led astray into error and taught to prefer indulgences to works of love.”[2] This letter, which was written before the Reformation had fully flowered, makes clear that Luther’s concern was for Christ, His church and the truth.

            The second facet of Luther’s character which Metaxas brings out is that of Luther as the scholar. Another aspect of Luther’s life that may be lost on some, is that Luther was a brilliant scholar. Clearly, Luther was a man who drank deeply from the well of God’s Word and from this, he drew the energy to put forth his disagreements with the church at the time. One of the most astonishing details of Luther’s scholarship that comes out in this work is that he translated the entire New Testament into German during his time at the Wartburg in eleven weeks![3] The level of learning required in both Greek and German for this task is quite high and the time that he did it in only makes it more impressive. Luther’s learning and scholarship is also brought out in his theological polemics, which were of the highest order. This can easily be shown by pointing one to Luther’s Magnum Opus, On the Bondage of the Will in which he makes clear that it is impossible on our own to earn salvation. The absolute necessity of divine grace and the idea that man is utterly incapable of performing the good works necessary for salvation is one of the hallmarks of Luther’s theological contributions. Overall, this was an excellent biography and I would commend it to anyone who is desirous of learning more about Martin Luther.

Ben Petersen serves as stated supply of Redeemer Fellowship in Crosby, Texas and is a licentiate in the OPC. He earned his M.Div from Westminster Theological Seminary in 2020 and his Bachelor of Arts in History from Oregon State University in 2016.

[1] Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther (New York: Penguin Books, 2017), 97.

[2] Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther (New York: Penguin Books, 2017), 162.

[3] Metaxas, Luther 272.

 

Ben Petersen

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